December 01, 2009      

By many measures, robotic surgery has been a great success. Proponents of the approach note that the technology allows surgeons to accomplish their goal with less invasive techniques, and allows procedures to be performed more precisely and reproducibly. They also note that robotics technology enhances the performance of surgical teams while requiring less effort and precision on the part of the surgeon. Additionally, hospitals are actively advertising that they offer robotics solutions. That is, the systems themselves act as marketing and recruitment tools.

With robotics surgical systems costing up to $1 million or more, however, coupled with ongoing cost for support and training, groups are finding they must further justify the expense of the systems. The fact that robotic surgical procedures are often more expensive than their traditional counterparts does not help.

There have been many studies describing the efficacy of surgical procedures performed using robotic systems, although the business benefits of using such systems (overall reduced costs, increased patient throughput, etc.) are typically not addressed. Also, past studies have been small in scope and sample size, and limited to a single hospital … until now. 

The August issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology contains the largest study to date, and the first multi-institutional study, evaluating the effectiveness of robotic surgery.  The study, headed by M. Patrick Lowe, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, reviewed the results from 405 patients, in multiple institutions, who underwent robotic surgery for endometrial cancer between April 2003 and January 2009. The results of the study were in concordance with previous, smaller studies that found that robotic surgery resulted in shorted operative times, minimal blood loss, and reduced recovery times. A decrease in length of hospital stays and reduction in surgical complications were also reported.  These results map to business benefits such as increasing revenue (quicker turnover of hospital beds) and reducing institutional risk (fewer lawsuits), respectively.